Friday, April 16, 2010

The debate

Watching the ‘Prime Ministerial Candidates’ debate, it was impossible not to be struck by how little difference there was between all three candidates. Clegg played the outside role dictated to him by his party’s position, but pretty much all the candidates had more or less the same sort. of answers to the carefully vetted questions.

This was only the first of three debates, but what was perhaps most revealing was the questions that weren’t asked. The debate was very much conducted on safe territory for the neo-liberal consensus to which all three candidates subscribe. No questions on climate change or peak oil, where the combination of market and moralising that they all like so much offers little or nothing. No questions on why Britain is involved in two wars in Muslim countries where it has little direct interest – just an easy ball on whether ‘our troops’ have enough kit. Clegg at least had the decency to raise the cost of replacing Trident, but all the candidates seemed to agree that the one thing we can afford was continued participation in whatever wars the Americans need us for.

And not even a question on the banking crisis. There was some verbal joshing on the precise mechanics by which the candidates propose to cut public spending, but nothing about how we got into this mess (bailing out the incompetently-run banks) and why it is so important to cut the deficit (er, to make sure that those same banks will carry on lending to the state at interest rates it can afford). Even this limited engagement with the question of who is going to pay the bill clearly went down like a bucket of cold sick with the minutely-analysed studio panel; so that’s probably the last we’ll hear about that. Until after the election, when you can bet that whoever wins will “discover” that the problems of the public finances were worse than they’d previously thought.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Inequality and New Labour

The Government's own National Equality Panel produced a report called Anatomy of Economic Inequality in the UK.

It shows:

  • The households in the top tenth of the UK wealth distribution have total wealth 100 times those in the bottom tenth

  • The share of wealth of the top 0.05% of the population declined from 1937 until the 1970s – but by 2000 this was higher than it had been in 1937

  • In the 1990s the top tenth increased its share of national wealth – but all of this was due to the increased wealth of the top 0.1%

This is not an inevitable consequence of globalisation or the market economy, or any other such bullshit. In other European countries the share of the top 1% did not increase, as it did in the UK (it declined from 1937 to the 1970s there just the same).

Britain is a more unequal society than our European counterparts. It has become more so during the thirteen years of 'New Labour' government. All the drivel about 'fairness' or 'an aspirational society' cannot hide this. If I needed reminding why I wasn't going to vote Labour, now I don't.

Peter Mandelson's famous dictum that New Labour was "intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich" is the real face of New Labour; what we are seeing at the moment is the one that they dust off every few years for elections.

Monday, April 05, 2010


>“I don't understand! Why can't you help me?” wails the caller. “You're the fourth person I've spoken to. Everyone just puts me through to someone else.”

“It's OK lady,” says the policeman, in tones usually reserved for a disconsolate child. “This stuff is always upsetting – not just for you, for everyone it happens to. We're sort of the experts in these cases.”

He sighs, and leans back from the vidscreen. “I'll try to make is as simple as I can, and don't worry if you need me to explain anything twice. Just ask.”

“Th-thanks,” sobs the young woman. “Tell me again about the pensioning thing.”

“Not pensioning, pynchoning,” corrects the policeman. “Or in your case, cross-pynchoning.”

“It's like this. Imagine a rich guy, or a rich lady. They pay to live in a gated community. They pay to drive on the priority roads, so they don't have to sit in traffic jams behind the likes of you and me. They eat in Old Dollar restaurants, not the Carbon Dollar places we go to. So they don't want to rub shoulders with us on the interwebs either.”

“What has this got to do with my pictures?” asks the woman.

“See, the rich people, they have this thing called Pry Vuh Sea...” The woman looks at him blankly.

The policeman tries again. “You know, like in the old days – when some things about people were sort of secret. Well, not exactly secret, just things you didn't tell everyone.”

“Yeah, I know it's kind of hard to take in. You and all your friends are posting pics and vids of yourself twenty-four seven, and telling each other and everyone else what you are doing and thinking and what you had for breakfast.” He pauses for effect. “And these folk are doing the opposite.”

“Thing is, everybody leaves traces on the interwebs, even if they don't mean to. But the very rich, they don't like this. They don't want to be in the same space as you, even a virtual space. It makes them feel dirty, like you touched them.”

“So they pay for a pynchoning service. Back in the twentieth, there was this writer – sort of a blogger, but on paper things called books – called Pynchon. He went to a lot of trouble to make himself disappear – found all the old paper records of himself and tore them up, stuff like that. So now they call a bot that trawls through the webs, cleaning up those traces – the billing records, the address databases, and the CCTV footage -- they call that a pynchoning service, after the writer guy. The bot just erases everything on the web that's a trace of the rich people.”

“But I'm not rich, and I haven't paid for any service,” whines the caller.

“That's what I've been trying to explain for the last half an hour. You haven't, but you look or sound like someone else who has paid for pynchoning. Enough like them for the bot to be erasing the traces of you. Maybe you've got the same name as a rich lady, or there's something similar about your behavioural footprint – the shape of the traces that you leave. Anyway, the bot has a fix on you now, and any trace you make gets rubbed out. We call it cross-pynchoning because it's like cross-fire. Nobody wanted to wipe you out, you just got caught in the cross-fire.”

“And it won't just be the pictures, I'm afraid. It's going to get worse.”

“Worse? What do you mean, worse?” asks the woman.

“It's going to be everything, I'm afraid. Your high school records. Your medical records. Your accounts. If it's still there now, it'll be gone soon. The bots have a very high level of access on all the major public servers.”

“This must be against the law! Why can't you do something?” She is gasping now, and her voice is shrill and loud.

The policeman looks embarrassed. “It''s a very grey area. The identity laws are mainly about theft. Somebody steals your identity to get stuff they aren't supposed to have, it's against the law. You try to use someone else's identity, it's a crime. But the law is about the deception and the thing you use it for. Identity wipe? Did anything get stolen? Did anyone lose any money that was coming to them? no crime.”

“So what am I supposed to do?”

The policeman shrugs helplessly. “Live with it. Change your name and start over. I can recommend a counsellor that helps with cases like this. Unless you are really, really rich – then you could try a counter-pynchoner; but you aren't really rich, are you? Because if you were, you wouldn't be calling me, would you?”

For a while the woman caller stares at the image of the policeman on her vidscreen. After a long minute she hangs up, and his screen goes dark. The policeman goes back to his keyboard. He knows that she will call back for the name of the counsellor in a few hours. They usually did.